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Should Ads For New Drugs Be Banned For Two Years?


Misleading drug ads that use celebrities, pretty images and glib assurances to entice us to try medications are nothing new.

Insomnia drug Lunesta got slapped last year with a government warning letter over less-than-accurate claims in their butterfly-infested ads, and let's not forget those big lawsuits over ads by  painkiller Vioxx, purple heartburn pill Nexium, and birth control pill Yaz.

Chirpy Sally Field, promoting osteoporosis drug Boniva, doesn't mention that the once-a-month drug costs 10 times more than the generic, as  Consumer Reports and others have noted. Or that Boniva just might be exaggerating the benefits for the millions of postmenopausal women with reduced bone density (osteopenia) but not full-blown osteoporosis. Those women could be risking heartburn or bone fractures by taking this kind of drug.

Ok, so you get the picture about ads. They can sometimes bend the truth.

That is why some lawmakers have proposed banning or limiting drug companies from advertising new drugs to consumers for two years. The hope is it will lower drug prices and improve patient safety. (Some drug companies voluntarily wait six months before advertising new drugs, but such a wait is not required.)

The thinking is that an ad moratorium would keep drug manufacturers from spending big bucks on TV commercials, which would translate into cheaper drugs for us. Ban supporters also argue that it would provide a safety window for any harmful effects, that weren't detected during initial testing, to surface.

Sound like a good idea? Well, maybe. The Congressional Budget Office isn't so sure it would really produce cheaper drugs. Their recent report suggests that drug manufacturers would just spend all those millions on marketing the drugs directly to doctors, something they already do now.

The CBO report also points out that although an advertising ban "would allow more time for safety concerns about a new drug to be revealed, it would entail health risks of its own, because some individuals who would benefit from a new drug might be unaware of its availability in the absence of consumer advertising."

I'm not so convinced about this last point. Are we really supposed to depend on profit-driven TV commercials to provide us with reliable information about new drugs? Isn't that our doctor's responsibility? After all, commercials and advertising aren't meant to be neutral sources of facts; they're meant to sell, not inform.

What do you think? Is a two-year ban on drug ads a good idea? A reader survey on the NPR health blog found 84 percent believed it was. What's your opinion?

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